Honey bee science

show/hide words to know

Efficient: doing a job or task without wasting time or energy.

Lift: the force acting in an upward direction that helps animals and objects to fly....more

Pulsation: a beating, throbbing, or vibration that is often repetitive.

Rigid: hard and stiff.

Thorax: in general the part of the body between the neck and waist in humans and the central part of an insects body where the legs and wings are attached... more

What’s All the Buzz—How Do Bees Fly?

Have you ever wondered why you hear bees buzzing? Buzzing is the sound of a bee’s beating wings. Bees have two wings on each side of their body, which are held together with comb-like teeth called hamuli. These teeth allow the two wings to act as one large surface and help the bee create greater lift when flying.

carpenter bee Bee wing anatomy
Bees have two sets of wings, one larger outer set and one smaller, inner set. Image by Julia Wilkins. In each set of bee wings, the large and small wing is connected with hamuli, which are kind of like hooked comb teeth. Click to enlarge.

In order to beat these wings, a bee has muscles that cause its thorax to squeeze in two directions: both up-and-down, and left-and-right. The bee alternates these rhythmic thorax pulsations, kind of like how we breathe, but instead of pulling in air, these pulsations cause the bee’s wings to beat back and forth. This also allows bees to beat their wings very quickly and fly.Honey bees can beat their wings over 230 times per second.

The Science of Bee Flight

Animated bee flying

 

This animation shows how a bee moves its wings during flight. See the image below for a step-by-step view of the wing path.

Scientists used to think that a bee’s wings were rigid, making bees kind of like little planes that moved hard wings up and down. But bee wings are fairly small for their body size, so even at 230 beats per second, rigid wings wouldn’t be able to let bees fly. For many years, scientists couldn’t understand how it was possible that bees could fly. But then, using high-quality video that could show the bee wing beats in slow motion, they finally figured it out.

Understanding bee wings was key to figuring out how bees could fly. Their wings are not rigid, but twist and rotate during flight. Bee wings make short, quick sweeping motions front and back, front and back. This motion creates enough lift to make it possible for bees to fly.

Bee flight wing path

The path of a bee's wings during flight. Click for more detail.

Some other insects have a longer motion from front to back and a slower wing beat. The slower beat makes other insects more efficient, meaning they can get more lift with less work.

So why might bees use an inefficient way of flying? Scientists think that the style of flying bees use lets them carry heavy loads when needed. That ability comes in handy a lot for honey bees, who carry nectar and pollen from flowers back to the nest.


Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Bee hovering at lavender flower by photophilde.

View Citation

You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: How Do Bees Fly?
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: October 24, 2017
  • Date accessed: September 21, 2018
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/how-do-bees-fly

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2017, October 24). How Do Bees Fly?. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved September 21, 2018 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/how-do-bees-fly

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "How Do Bees Fly?". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 October, 2017. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/how-do-bees-fly

MLA 2017 Style

Dr. Biology. "How Do Bees Fly?". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 Oct 2017. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 21 Sep 2018. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/how-do-bees-fly

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Honey bee in flight at a lavender flower

Bees have small wings for their body size, so how is it that they can fly?

Be Part of
Ask A Biologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteers page to get the process started.

Donate icon  Contribute

Share this page:

 

Share to Google Classroom